Colour is everywhere in Pa Ranjith’s deeply political and visceral film Kaala (streaming on Prime Video and Hotstar). It is in the clothes that its characters wear (Rajinikanth’s Karikalan wears black as a power statement, battling nemesis Nana Patekar, who is seen in nothing but a crisp pure white), and in the area — that everyone wants a piece of — they inhabit. But more particularly, colour is smack bang in the middle of its storytelling.
“Black is the colour of the working-class. Come to my chawl and see all the dirt scatter into a rainbow,” Karikalan tells Haridada (Patekar), to whom black, and by association Dharavi, is nothing but dirt. This dialogue gets an incredible closure in its climax, when Dharavi quite literally turns into a rainbow of colours to defeat Haridada’s schemes to “white” wash the neighbourhood. Anu Vardhan, who designed the costumes for Rajinikanth, Patekar and Huma Qureshi, tells us that every little detail of colour in the film was the result of a research-backed, conscious decision. “I really enjoyed the clarity with which Ranjith approached things. The first brief he gave me was that white is always seen as good and black as bad. He wanted to reverse this notion.” From pitting black vs white to using shades of reds and blues as symbols of resistance, every colour in Kaala screams character on screen.
Karikalan embraces the colour black like no other in the landscape of modern Tamil cinema pop culture. From his glasses to slippers, everything Kaala wears has shades of black. Black is usually associated with mourning, or something deep and dark, says Anu. “I thought it was refreshing to break something like this to have a person as innocent as Kaala wear black. He has a big family, who are all bound by his love. So, it was interesting to use black in these kinds of spaces.”
Ranjith’s clarity and working with a bound script meant Anu could focus on the details of Kaala and Haridada’s universe. She picked an indigenous cotton fabric called kala cotton for Kaala. But the fabric that shares its name with the protagonist wasn’t just a random coincidence. “There was a huge farmer suicide incident happening at the time and I worked with a group called Tula, which was helping a lot of these indigenous farmers revive their farm. Almost 2.5 lakh farmers out of these were cotton farmers. And since the name was also kala, it connected to me somewhere. This is the fabric we've used for most of the film.”
Kaala’s colour palette ranged between blues and indigos to black, depending on the character’s narrative graph on screen. “Every detail of his costume had some tone of black attached to it. Whenever he is in an intense scene, we've given him black because we wanted to depict the battle between the black and the white in the movie. He wears a lot of lighter blues when he is at leisure and at home. This was a very conscious decision by Ranjith.”
Blue, a colour often associated with Dalit resistance, is a colour that is used profusely in the film in different contexts. From the woman who leads the protest in Dhobi Ghat in its opening scene to a Zareena who is now on Kaala’s side, blue is used to depict revolution in the film. “There is always an unheard voice in his films. The effect it has on him has always been very evident in his other films.”
For Zareena, Kaala’s lover from the past, Anu picked kala cotton fabrics in colours that would complement Kaala’s. She kept things very simple for Haridada. “We got a nice vintage pair of Cartier glasses for him that was quite expensive. He had very minimal stuff but they were all expensive brands. People who are in that stature will wear something simple but high-end. His slippers are also kolhapuri,” she says, adding that everything was meticulously choreographed.
Anu, who dressed up two senior stars for the film, points out that the biggest of stars are always the easiest to work with. “They are so confident in their own skin, so anything that you give them, they carry it with so much grace. Rajini sir gets very excited everytime we do a look test. Once he transforms into a character, he just becomes a 20-year-old with so much energy.”
Lenin, Kaala’s youngest son has the same intentions as his father — to give the people of Dharavi a better life. But their ways are different. Lenin, who is named after the Marxist revolutionary, uses his education to revolt, while father resorts to using power. Manikandan, who plays Lenin, features in a lot of reds in the movie, depicting his call for revolution, says Subika.
The main colours in the film were blue and black and every other colour and character revolved around this palette, the designer says. “There are times Lenin opposes his dad and also times when he realises his truth. So, he'll be in red and blue based on these scenes. Whenever he's against Kaala, he is in red, but it slowly changes to blue when he understands his dad. I would’ve given him something in beige with a bluish tone whenever Lenin is stuck between supporting Haridada and Kaala.”
Subika, who along with Anu, spent days in Dharavi trying to understand the atmosphere, remembers raiding the wardrobe of so many generations of Tamil residents during her time there. “It was an amazing experience because I stayed in Dharavi for a few days, walked into people's houses, and took references. Even though they were Tamil, they were all based in Dharavi, and not Chennai, so I had to be mindful of all the differences in detail.”
The designer remembers seeing a lot of greens, pinks and a whole lot of fashion in the neighbourhood. “Dharavi was filled with colours. They were also quite into fashion, but I couldn't implement this too much with our characters. But I did this to an extent with Puyal with her fabrics and colour tones. Their fashion sense is quite ahead, so I tried to capture this.” For Puyal, Lenin’s girlfriend, she stayed away from solid colours and had some fun. “I didn’t want it to be monotone. However, if you notice, there will still be some shade of red or blue in all her costumes.”
Keeping blue as the base colour, Subika also worked with Samuthirakani’s character. “I worked quite a bit on his watch. He is an old-fashioned person stuck in the past. So, his wardrobe too is stuck in a different era. His world revolves around Kaala and his family, and he doesn't care too much about himself. So, that's why we stuck to an old watch, glasses and his kerchief, which will have blue in various tones.”
The designer, who worked on 27 characters in total, was also in charge of dressing up Haridada’s aides. “Everybody had their own goal in the film and the costume and colours depended on that. I took one colour and assigned it to each of them. If you look at Hari dada's group, I would've given them off whites or pastels. The whole gang had to portray themselves as good cops. But they play a lot of dirty politics on the inside.”
She considers Selvam, Kaala’s second son, as her biggest project. “Selvam is his dad's son and is the next in line to be his descendant. So, I gave him a lot of blues, greys and rust. His costumes are a modern version of a young Kaala's wardrobe.”
But Subika’s favourite costume was Selvi’s dazzling yellow sari she wears for her wedding anniversary with Kaala in the song ‘Vaadi Yen Thanga Sella’. “Yellow is Ranjith sir’s favourite colour. He thought the manjal colour went so well with the song as well because it is a typical colour used in the south. When she dressed up and came out to shoot, she just shined! That was a beautiful moment. She is the heroine in the song as Kaala is singing about his wife.” The song also gave the designer yet another surreal experience. “Seeing Rajini sir dance is something I’d never forget.”